Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Obama's Legacy, a Nuclear Iran?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Obama's Legacy, a Nuclear Iran?

Article excerpt

There is little doubt that Barak Obama deems the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of July 2015 to be his crowning foreign policy achievement and an important pillar of his presidential legacy. To his mind, the deal is a shining nonproliferation success story achieved via peaceful diplomacy and an important catalyst to improving decades-long, moribund U.S.Iranian relations.

But, Obama's assessment is wrong. The JCPOA has many flaws and weaknesses, and it is important to assess the president's role in the process that produced this dubious deal: What happened on the ground; how Obama's perceptions of nuclear disarmament colored his attitudes toward Iran, and the tactics he used to marginalize criticism and mobilize support for a flawed deal at the domestic level. It is equally important to examine to what lengths the president went in order to protect his problematic deal after it was presented, and at what cost. What legacy on Iran has Obama left for the next administration?

The Road to the JCPOA

In early April 2009, shortly after entering the White House, Obama made his first major foreign policy speech in Prague where he unveiled his agenda for advancing the goal of global nuclear disarmament.1 While his initial steps in this direction were taken primarily at the global level,2 in autumn 2009-after Tehran had been caught red-handed constructing a hidden enrichment facility at Fordow3-Obama made his first attempt to conclude a partial nuclear agreement with Iran in the context of a "fuel deal" offered by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1). The offer was that 75-80 percent of Iran's then-stockpile of low enriched uranium would be shipped abroad and turned into the fuel plates that the Iranians said they needed to run the civilian Tehran Research Reactor.4

The offer was purposely designed to test whether Tehran was exclusively focused on civilian nuclear activities as it emphatically insisted-a claim the West did not believe and for which it demanded "proof' via Iranian action.5 Yet while Tehran rejected the deal and failed the U.S. test, the administration persisted in its efforts to engage the determined proliferator. Although Obama did move to ramp up sanctions significantly on Tehran in 2010 after the deal was rejected-a process that culminated with the biting sanctions of 20126-the bad faith displayed by Iran in the nuclear realm hardly resonated with an administration that was bent on diplomacy. The tendency to try to prove Tehran's intransigence, only to continue the talks after such proof was provided-including agreeing to more concessions-is a dynamic that was also to reappear in later stages of the negotiations. Maintaining diplomacy, which began as a means to an end (i.e., stopping Iran's quest for nuclear weapons), gradually became an end in itself. This provided an important lesson for Tehran when negotiations began in earnest in 2013.

After securing an interim deal, or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in late November 2013, negotiations on a final and comprehensive nuclear deal began in January 2014. Up until 2013, the P5+1 had sought to dismantle Iran's nuclear infrastructure- except perhaps for an extremely limited and mainly symbolic enrichment program of no more than 1,500 centrifuges-and to deny it the ability to develop nuclear weapons. However, by 2014, the P5+1 negotiators had deemed this goal unattainable and settled instead for the much watered-down aim: merely lengthening Tehran's breakout time from several months to a year while leaving much of its nuclear infrastructure intact.7 Moreover, they agreed to lift the restrictions in ten to fifteen years regardless of any change in Iran's interests or behavior. Initial concessions, such as agreeing not to discuss ballistic missiles, opened the door to further compromises, all in an effort to keep Tehran at the negotiating table. The red-lines regarding the dismantlement of Iran's nuclear infrastructure turned pink, and many disappeared altogether. …

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